Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
Nestled near the intersection of Meadow Street and Flinn Avenue in Ronco is a playground with two benches, two swings, an adjacent blacktop basketball court and one very intriguing optical illusion.
Through the chain link fence surrounding the playground, at a certain angle, one can see the twin smokestacks of the defunct Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station across the Monongahela River. From the road, the horizon is low and the smokestacks are cut off from view by a slide from the playground. So from Ronco’s perspective, the view looks like it’s all downhill from an industrial peak.
It’s a symbolic illusion that could easily describe Ronco itself, and it’s worth examining because of how high that peak was in the German Township community’s first several decades due to its historic coal production.
“It’s not the same town I grew up in,” Barry Reda, 68, said. “The town is basically falling apart.”
“We’re not the richest,” Michelle Perkey, 34, said. “But we’re a fairly happy town.”
The community had a population of 256 as of the 2010 U.S. Census, down 20 percent from just the decade before, and it’s no longer the close-knit coal mining neighborhood it once was. Whether the optical illusion is true and Ronco really has gone downhill since its Frick Company days depends on which residents’ eyes you’re seeing through.
It’s hard to stumble upon Ronco by accident. There’s only one road in and out of the community, and it’s called Ronco Road, which fills the mile-and-a-half gap between Route 21 and the center of Ronco.
Ronco has one church, one volunteer fire department, one post office and seven streets.
The First Baptist Church of Ronco, a brown-bricked trapezoid with Sunday school and morning worship services, sits on the left as one enters the community.
The post office was founded in 1902, a year into Ronco’s existence, and postmaster Carolyn Capozza said the community has a neighborhood watch group consisting of roughly 14 residents. “There have been issues with older people dying and a lot of houses being rented out,” Capozza said.
Longtime Ronco resident Frances Anderson, 72, said she and her niece rent out approximately 20 Ronco properties and that residents frequently move in and out. Anderson and other Ronco residents said the increase in renters in recent year has resulted in a more transitory population, which in turn means not as many neighbors know each other.
“As a child living here, you knew everybody,” said Darell Hicks, a member of the Ronco Volunteer Fire Department who has lived in the community for 35 years. “A lot of families were families that lived here for a long time, parents and grandparents in mines. There’s less and less of that now because of the rental properties.”
Several residents said illicit drugs are increasingly prevalent in Ronco, though not more so than other communities in the area.
Perkey has lived in Ronco for just over a year and said she guesses she is one of the highest-earning people in the community.
“As a single parent, that says a lot (about Ronco),” Perkey said.
But Perkey said it’s a trustworthy area where neighbors still know and look after each other’s kids, fish in the river and shop in Uniontown. Longtime Ronco Volunteer Fire Department member Darell Hicks said the department currently boasts 20 active members, adding that residents like to walk and bike on Browns Run Trail, which begins at the Monongahela River near Ronco.
Several residents said the Southwest Regional Police Department has made them feel safer since taking over coverage in German Township last year.
Many coal patch duplex houses from the early 20th century still stand surrounded by faded white picket fences, including several houses that coal bosses lived in. Franklin Easter, 80, lives in a boss house and said Ronco has been a “good place to be” for the past 38 years.
‘A longer industrial history’
Ronco only became a place of residence once some of those coke and coal bosses decided it should.
Named by combining the last three letters of “Sharon” and the first two letters of “Company,” Ronco was developed in 1901 when the Sharon Coke Company opened a shaft and built homes for workers there. The H.C. Frick Coke Company then bought the property from the Sharon Coke Company in 1903 when the latter company became part of U.S. Steel. According to Kenneth Warren’s book “Wealth, Waste and Alienation: Growth and Decline in the Connellsville Coke Industry,” Ronco’s coke plant contained 350 ovens on the banks of the Monongahela, the first Frick plant to be located at such a “remarkably favorable” location.
In Dec. 1921, according to a copy of Iron Age magazine from the following year, the Ronco plant set a new record for coal production of any one mine during a single month, as 134,000 tons of coal were hoisted from the Ronco shaft in that month. “Establishment of this record in the face of present industrial conditions is remarkable,” the magazine opined at the time.
“Growing up, I assumed mountains in the distance were slag heaps from coal,” said Dennis Ballas, 63, a native of the nearby community Gates who knows Ronco well and author of a book on German Township history, “I Remember German.”
Ronco’s rich industrial history goes back to a cement works there owned by Enoch Brown in the 1870s, the kilns from which are still standing. The Huron Water Works purification plant was built by the Trotter Water Company around 1900 along the banks of the Monongahela near Ronco and stood there for roughly 90 years.
The Frick Company tunneled the Ronco mine under the Monongahela River to Greene County in 1943 to create the Robena mine, which was the largest coal mine in the country at the time according to Coal Camp USA. The Ronco mine was one of the last in Fayette County to close, shutting down in 1955 according to Kim Show, a former Ronco resident and historian of the community.
“Ronco had a longer, more multifaceted industrial history than other coal patches,” Ballas said. “It connected with a new generation at the Robena mine as well.”
The dangers and economics of coal and coke production in Ronco took a toll on its mining families, though.
According to the Coal & Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, at least 15 miners were killed and 14 injured on the job in Ronco during the 1900s and 1910s alone.
Show said company-built houses in Ronco were not wired for electricity until 1927 because the company did not want to pay for that service, and the roads were not paved until 1940, isolating residents during winter months.
“My uncle tried to get a union in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s,” Reda said. “Once (the bosses) found out, they packed him up with bags, put him on a wagon and said, ‘Don’t come back.’”
“My father and other workers would refer to the superintendent and that class of people as scabs,” Ballas said. “That class always registered Republican and watched workers, who were registered Democrat, on Election Day like a hawk.”
And of course, the coal wouldn’t mine itself.
“The boss would come around and stand on one side of a coal buggy, with the miner on the other,” Ballas said. “The coal had to be so high on the buggy the boss couldn’t see you.”
‘The great equalizer’
But company families in Ronco nevertheless appreciated being able to live life on a level playing field.
The H.C. Frick Coke Company required that all resident mining families in Ronco whitewashed their fences, helping the community look very different in the last century than it does now.
“The company provided whitewash every year,” said Kim Show, “When you came down Hoover Hill, (Ronco) looked like a giant white cloud when it hit the light a certain way.”
“Everything had to be neat and proper, probably to make us the same,” Reda said. “And it did.”
Reda recalls that the children in boss families shared their baseballs or footballs with the children of miner families who couldn’t afford them.
The Union Supply Company store in Ronco, built just after World War I, sold everything from carpeting to dresses to gasoline, according to Ballas, offering extended credit. Slavic, Russian, Italian, and Polish immigrants lived in ethnic sections but mingled, and according to Show, mostly appreciated the opportunity to live in America.
“Everybody’s father worked in the mine,” Show said. “Everybody had the same income. I call it the great equalizer.”
Anderson, who is black, said there was no racial tension in Ronco, adding that she lived in many places, including Boston, New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Houston., Key Biscayne, Fla. and Bermuda.
“Ronco was the best out of all of them,” Anderson said.
“I wouldn’t have cared to have been raised anywhere else,” Delbert Griffith, 72, said, recalling playing with cans and marbles along with other children in Ronco. “It was like one big happy family, the best place in the world to be raised. Everybody knew everybody.”
Now Griffith wants to recapture that familial Ronco feeling. Last year, Griffith came up with the idea of holding a reunion of past and present Ronco residents, and the five-member Ronco community committee has been planning for the reunion, which will be held Aug. 6 at the American Legion in Masontown. Griffith said around 150 people had said they would attend from areas as widespread as California, Texas and Louisiana.
“I’ve been on the phone a good bit inviting people and trying to find more,” Griffith said. “If it works out, I’ll be glad I did it.”
Ronco is much smaller than when it was at its peak of 116 houses, according to Show, but most people who have lived there say it’s worth coming back for.
“It’s decent and peaceful,” Perkey said.